Essay by Malcolm Knox

Stasiland is one of the finest works of journalism produced anywhere in the world over the past quarter century, all the more impressive in that its author, Anna Funder, was acting as an intrepid amateur, rather than a professional reporter, when she conducted her research in Berlin before and after the Wall came down.

Calling this book ‘journalism’ may be seen as a provocation. Certainly the popular synonyms – ‘creative non-fiction’, ‘narrative non-fiction’, ‘literary journalism’, ‘New Journalism’ and the like – had the effect of distinguishing such work from, and elevating it above, ‘straight’ reporting as carried out by media professionals. But calling Stasiland ‘journalism’ is my way of paying it the highest compliment. The trademarks of this hybrid, such as the intervention of an impressionable first-person narrator and the reconstruction of scenes in a ‘novelistic’ mode rather than simply reporting a witness’s testimony, can as easily undermine as improve a work. ‘Creativity’ can also mean distortion and exploitation. The best ‘creative non-fiction’ has the same fundamental purpose as conventional journalism: to bring the news, to speak the truth to power, to reveal important stories that had been hidden.

My intention is not to get bogged down in an uninteresting taxonomic debate about what ‘journalism’ is or is not*, but rather to draw attention to the moment in history when Funder published Stasiland. The early 2000s were, in retrospect, a time of simultaneous shrinkage and expansion of journalism’s possibilities. Powerful media forms – the newspaper, the news magazine, the short television news documentary – were coming to grips with the first signs of a decline that would, within five years, accelerate dramatically. Meanwhile the internet, less than five years old when Funder did most of her investigations, was about to empower the independent ‘citizen journalist’, and then prompt questions about such journalism’s credibility. Funder wrote and published Stasiland at this hinge moment. Whereas the form she used, the conventional non-fiction print book, belonged to the immediate past, much of her work anticipated journalism’s immediate, off-the-leash future.

In the 1980s, Funder took a trip into the Communist-block German Democratic Republic (GDR) as a student and stayed just long enough to wonder ‘long and hard about what went on behind that Wall’. She returned twice in the 1990s, living in the former Communist east. The Wall had fallen in 1989 and the GDR had been absorbed into modern Germany, but Funder was disturbed by how uninterested her colleagues were in what had happened behind the Wall during its 28 years. One told her: ‘Look, they are just Germans who had Communism for forty years and went backwards, and all they want now is the money to have big TV sets and holidays in Majorca like everyone else. It was an experiment and it failed.’

This indifference sparked Funder’s investigations. In the first years after reunification, nobody seemed to be asking the big questions. A visit to a former Stasi office, now a museum, led Funder to Miriam Weber, a Leipzig woman who tried to escape the east as a 16-year-old, was captured, and faced decades of harassment from the GDR’s secret police, or Stasi. Her husband Charlie, an ex-teacher turned writer, died in a Stasi prison in 1980; Miriam’s suspicion that he was murdered drove her to investigate the Stasi records that were released after the Wall fell.

‘The Stasi,’ Funder writes,

. . . was the internal army by which the government kept control. Its job was to know everything about everyone, using any means it chose. It knew who your visitors were, it knew whom you telephoned, and it knew if your wife slept around. It was a bureaucracy metastasised through East German society: overt or covert, there was someone reporting to the Stasi on their fellows and friends in every school, every factory, every apartment block, every pub. Obsessed with detail, the Stasi entirely failed to predict the end of Communism, and with it the end of the country.

It had 97,000 employees and an estimated 173,000 informers: one per 6.5 citizens, compared with one Gestapo agent per 2000 people in Nazi Germany and one KGB agent per 5830 in Stalin’s USSR.

Stasiland is a book of heroes and villains. After meeting Miriam, Funder advertises in a newspaper for ex-Stasi agents to allow her to interview them. From the woodwork emerge a series of characters who embody what the philosopher Hannah Arendt called ‘the banality of evil’. Herr Winz, a Stasi bureaucrat, rages over the poor treatment of the former GDR in reunified Germany. Hagen Koch, the cartographer who ‘drew’ the Wall, reveals that he came from a family that was coerced into cooperating with the Stasi. Karl-Eduard Schnitzler, a GDR television demagogue, lives in deluded retirement waiting for the return of Communism. Herr Christian will spy for any employer; Herr Bock used to recruit informants – ‘It made them feel they were someone’ – and Herr Bohnsack, a suave former international spy, is now doing very well in business. These Stasi men provoke what Funder calls a composite feeling, ‘horror-romance’, typical of the ‘sticklebrick words’ for which she fell in love with the German language as an Australian schoolgirl.

Funder figures in Stasiland, but as a reporter more than as a central player. Sometimes her role provides light relief, as she struggles with poor heating, antiquated transport and the attentions of men who look at her ‘as if [she is] food’. Funder’s presence acts as a frame around the interviews she conducts. They start because of her curiosity. In the end, they stop because she has to go home when her mother falls ill.

Funder has an expert investigator’s gift for finding stories. Julia, the young woman who manages Funder’s apartment, says at first that she ‘has no story’, but eventually reveals a life of Stasi persecution that got so bad, she fell into one of the cracks in GDR reality: barred from getting a job, she was unemployed in a land of zero official unemployment. But then, as the GDR collapsed, Julia was raped, and we see how former easterners feel less safe from crime in the new Germany. ‘In a security state, after all, the least the authorities could do when they were incarcerating so many innocents was to clean up the criminals at the same time,’ Funder writes.

Julia’s confession is a prelude to that of Frau Sigrid Paul, whose sick infant son was in a hospital in West Berlin when the Wall went up in 1961. Frau Paul became involved in smuggling students from East to West, but when the Stasi offered her a chance to betray her students in exchange for visits to her little boy, she resisted. But her heroism didn’t improve her life. As Funder says, ‘It seems to me that Frau Paul, as one does, may have overestimated her own strength, her resistance to damage, and that she is now, for her principles, a lonely, teary guilt-wracked wreck.’

With Frau Paul, Funder visits a Stasi torture cell. This carries Stasiland to a new level of emotional intensity. Much of the Stasi’s work, such as the famous ‘smell samples’ – pieces of cloth which had come into contact with citizens were kept in jars for the use of sniffer dogs – can easily seem the comical antics of low-tech wannabe James Bonds. But as Stasiland develops, we see that the reality of living under the Stasi was no laughing matter.

That describes the content of Stasiland, but what kind of book is it? It is an example of what is often called narrative or creative non-fiction. In illuminating her stories, Funder re-creates scenes from her subjects’ lives. Dialogue and narration are embroidered into events that occurred many years ago, so that what we see, as readers, is not simply what Funder sees – this would produce a series of interview transcripts – but what she imagines occurred. She invents scenes, from what she is told, and we experience them as if we are there.

This cinematic re-creation has been an accepted technique since it was pioneered by American writers such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1980), and the books and magazine articles of Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and others. In Australia, Helen Garner’s The First Stone (1995) and Joe Cinque’s Consolation(2004) and Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man (2008) are notable examples. Since Sir Walter Scott, novelists had incorporated historical material into fiction. By the 1990s, it was common practice for the writers of history, journalism and biography to incorporate novelists’ methods into their work.

Such convergence can cause problems for the non-fiction writer when the ‘novelistic’ techniques reach a point where they distort the essential accuracy of the work. It can also produce temptations for the ethically-challenged writer who wishes to pass off a work of fiction as one of fact. In Stasiland, Funder managed to overcome these challenges by skilfully marrying her rhetorical gifts to a serious respect for her sources and the importance of their stories.

In his novel The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes makes extensive use of an (invented) aphorism from a French philosopher he names Patrick Lagrange: ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation’. This is a neat description for the space in which Funder was working inStasiland (and Barnes’s coinage shows how the aphorism can be applied as much to fiction as to non-fiction).

Funder applies a kind of ‘zoom’ effect to her key interviews. In Miriam’s story, for example, the outer layer is Funder’s first encounter with her at Leipzig train station (‘It feels like a blind date, because we have described ourselves to each other’) and going with her to her apartment (‘She has a surprisingly big nicotine-stained voice’.) A middle layer is the transcription of Miriam’s own words as she tells Funder her story (‘At sixteen, I became an enemy of the state’), and, with it, Funder’s own interjections and questions. The inner layer, where Funder steps over the line into recreation of scenes, is where Funder’s own narration takes over from Miriam’s.

Something shifted, right near her. It was a dog. The huge german shepherd pointed himself in her direction . . . She could not move. The dog did not move. She thought the guards’ eyes would follow the pointing dog to her.

Funder’s great skill lies in moving between these three focal distances so smoothly that the reader scarcely notices. We are in three places: we observe Funder and Miriam in an apartment in the 1990s; we are in Funder’s skin watching and listening to Miriam; and we are in Miriam’s skin too, back in the 1970s when she was arrested trying to escape East Berlin.

Not only does this provide an intense and exciting experience for the reader, but it deals with the challenge of authenticity. Presumably, if Funder were to get carried away with the thrills of re-creation, she might produce entire dramatised chapters of narration and dialogue set in the 1970s and 1980s: as if writing a novel through Miriam’s point of view. While this is a conventional practice in ‘creative non-fiction’, it prompts the literal-minded reader to ask the question: ‘How would Funder know?’ By limiting her flights into direct drama, and by constantly returning to the ‘middle’ and ‘outer’ layers of her zooming, Funder is reminding us that these situations are being related years after they occurred, with all the unreliability that that implies. Yet in their unreliability resides their truth: these are acts of faulty memory where it meets the inadequacies of documentation. By placing herself in the story as interviewer, Funder manages to strengthen the sense of truth, for all its unreliability, that her witnesses’ stories hold.

The temptation to over-embroider, and take ‘creative non-fiction’ over the line to ‘fiction’, was highlighted around the time of Stasiland‘s publication – a period in which exotic memoir was the flavour of the literary month. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and Norma Khouri’sForbidden Love were published the year after Stasiland. Frey exaggerated his battles with drug addiction to the point where they became fictitious. He argued that his account was ’emotionally true’. But the emotions were contained precisely in the degrees of exaggeration – that he was in jail for weeks, for instance, rather than days – so his excuse came out as simply self-serving after he had been caught in the act. In Khouri’s case, her memoir of the ‘honour killing’ of a young woman in Jordan was fraudulent not because honour killings do not occur, but because Khouri placed herself as an eyewitness to such a murder and the events leading up to it. In fact, she was living as a housewife in the USA.

Stasiland, for all its ‘creative’ flights, stops well short of fabrication. Funder checked her manuscript with her sources, which doesn’t make Stasiland objectively ‘true’, if such a thing exists, but does at least make it correspond to their memories. Moreover, Stasiland‘s authenticity lies in its restraint. For instance, at one point Funder spends some time in a dark room with a creepy ex-Stasi man, Herr Bock, waiting for a taxi. Throughout this episode, Funder stays in the ‘outer’ layer, reporting her interview with Bock rather than entering into his consciousness. This keeps him at a distance from us, and transmit’s Funder’s view that such men are still untrustworthy at best, and dangerous at worst. At the end of the interview, Funder tries to catch a taxi, fails, and has to go back into Bock’s apartment to telephone one. He does not turn on the lights.

This man with his brown cocoon and his conspiratorial room is unlikely to touch me, but I resent his enjoyment in having me at his mercy. I am worried the taxi will see a dark house on a dark street and turn around and leave.

The situation is pregnant with threat. We find ourselves, with Funder, almost in the shoes of a Stasi prisoner. But soon a taxi arrives.

[Bock] turns from the window, disappointed.

‘That was quick,’ he says.

I grab my things and I leave him there, all lights out in the GDR.

This dramatic downbeat renders the episode both believable – this is the way real life happens – and also more powerful. We can sense Herr Bock’s underlying sadism all the more for his inability to exercise it on Funder. In this way, the ‘less’ of non-fiction can be ‘more’. Fabrication or exaggeration is not only unethical, but comparatively ineffective.

Funder’s vulnerability to Herr Bock reminds the reader of a constant thread in the book – the reinforcement, under the Stasi, of state terror with sexual terror. Miriam, Julia and Frau Paul tell stories where they are oppressed not just because they are ‘suspect’, but because they are women. In each of the sinister interrogations and imprisonments they recount, the threat of sexual assault is an undercurrent. The fact that Julia was raped by a released criminal in a lift rather than by a Stasi officer in an interrogation room is an important difference to her – she feels, paradoxically, that the streets of the GDR were safer for a woman – but it does not weaken Funder’s sense that East Germany was not just a terror state but a male state.

Funder brings a woman’s point of view to her investigations. A man might not notice that Stasi headquarters has no women’s toilet. The fiction that communist countries were paradises of sexual equality is not fully exposed in Stasiland – that is not one of Funder’s principal aims – but it is implicit in her point of view, her observations and in her sympathy for her female subjects. Stasiland would be a different book if it had been written by a man.

The author’s gender is important in her investigations – women make confessions to Funder that they might only make to another woman – but it is less central to the story, and to the debate that followed its publication, than her nationality. It is as an Australian, a foreign ingénue, that Funder is able to win her subjects’ trust. Often they tell her they will only open up because she is writing in English, for an audience on the other side of the earth. Both the Stasi men and their victims seem liberated, or freed of responsibility, by the fact that they hold no strong prejudices about Funder’s nationality except in that it is non-German. As an outsider, she is a blank slate.

Without this status, it is doubtful that she would have obtained her stories. But it came back to bite her when she sought a publisher in Germany. Stasiland was rejected by 23 publishers, and then Funder withdrew it from another over her dissatisfaction with the translation. When it was published, she was asked what right she had, as an Australian, to write about German lives (she responded: ‘From what authority should I have sought permission?’). An organisation of former Stasi men took out an injunction that saw a passage deleted. That passage tells us how ex-Stasi officials have close ties with the Party of Democratic Socialism and continue to intimidate those who want to expose what the Stasi did. Intimidation, Funder writes, ‘clearly has its own pleasures; a hard habit to break.’ Funder has since written of the strong revisionist forces in Germany seeking to control the history of the GDR. Some of her sources, she says, remain frightened to speak publicly because they now work for organisations managed by former Stasi officers.

The fruits of Funder’s perspective, as an outsider, might be contrasted with the German film-maker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Academy Award-winning The Lives of Others (Das Leben Der Anderen) (2006), which tells of a Stasi spy who is humanised by the love and art he sees in the lives of a couple he spies upon. He falls in love with the woman, an actress, and is transformed by hearing the man, a playwright, playing Beethoven’s Sonata for a Good Man on piano. His loveless Stasi shell is cracked, and he eventually saves the playwright from imprisonment.

It is a nice fantasy and a timeless story of the power of art, but, as Funder pointed out in her review of the movie, such a thing never happened in East Germany – and it couldn’t have happened. ‘No Stasi man every tried to save his victims,’ Funder wrote, ‘because it was impossible . . . The film doesn’t accurately portray the way totalitarian systems work, because it needs to leave room for its hero to act humanely (something such systems are designed to prevent).’

The Lives of Others is an uplifting escapist experience, and of course it is possible that art and love can redeem monsters. But, Funder wrote, ‘To understand why a Wiesler could not have existed is to understand the ‘total’ nature of totalitarianism’. A real Stasi agent had too many other Stasi agents watching him. Real Stasi men were as Funder portrays them: unrepentant, unapologetic, tyrants for life. And they continue to try to assert themselves in Germany.

For such men, Funder argues, ideology was not a justification for cruelty, but a flag of convenience under which an innate sadism travelled. These same types of men wore Gestapo uniforms before the Stasi. One of the great fictions of East Germany, Funder writes, was that the Russian takeover of the east in 1945 meant that,

. . . almost overnight the Germans in the eastern states were made, or made themselves, innocent of Nazism. It seemed as if they actually believed that Nazis had come from and returned to the western parts of Germany, and were somehow separate from them – which was in no way true. History was so quickly remade, and so successfully, that it can truly be said that the easterners did not feel then, and do not feel now, that they were the same Germans as those responsible for Hitler’s regime. This sleight-of-history must rank as one of the most extraordinary innocence manoeuvres of the century.

Funder is, in my view, a deeply ethical writer who discovered urgent stories in East Germany and told them before anyone else. Funder pushed them to the limits of non-fiction, rendering them unforgettable for the reader, but not so far that their truth was compromised. In later years, she found another German story, about the anti-Nazi resistance in the 1920s and 1930s, and discovered that the amount of reshaping she would have to apply would take her across the line into fiction. The result was her novel All That I Am. Once that line into fiction is crossed, a different burden falls upon the writer. The reader is taken from an assessment of reality – Did this happen? Why did it happen? – to an assessment of the author’s powers of imagination.

Stasiland is a work that journalists ought to admire and readers will relish. Although Funder was not publishing for news media, Stasiland contains everything for which journalists strive. It brought urgent news of what had happened behind the Wall. It bore witness to acts that powerful interests would like to leave hidden. It gave voice to people who had nothing but their own strength of character, against those who had no strength, no character, but the full force of state power. In gathering her stories, Funder needed the journalist’s prime virtues: she was independent, tenacious, brave, wonderfully intrepid, and she was able to win the trust of those who tell both sides of the story.

* If you want a definition, Matthew Ricketson’s serves well: ‘By book-length journalism I mean the practice of using journalistic methods to research and write independently about contemporary actual people, events and issues at book-length in a timely manner for a broad audience. By journalistic methods, I mean the finding of documents whether in print or online, interviewing people and first-hand observation . . . other terms used for this area of writing practice include literary journalism, narrative journalism, literary non-fiction and creative non-fiction.’


Further reading

Bruce, G. The Firm: The inside story of the Stasi. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Fulbrook, M. The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker. Yale University Press, 2005.

Funder, A. All That I Am. Penguin, 2011.

Koehler, J. Stasi: the untold story of the East German secret police. Westview Press, 2000.

Anna Funder’s review of The Lives of Others

‘Tyranny of Terror’. Guardian, 5 May 2007.

Debate about Stasiland in Germany

Gerber, L. “Australian Voices in Germany: the translation of Anna Funder’s Stasiland into German.” Extracted in PEN Magazine, November 2009.

Betts, P. “Property, Peace and Honour: Neighbourhood Justice in Communist Berlin.” Past and Present 201 (2008): 215-54.

Freudenstein, R. “After the wall: competing narratives of Germany’s unification 20 years after the Wende.” European View 8 (2009): 263-70.

Young, S. “Fractured Identities: superseding the past with the present.” Double Dialogues 13 (2010).

‘Literary journalism’ and ‘narrative non-fiction’

Josephi, B., Mueller, C. “Differently Drawn Boundaries of the Permissible in German and Australian Literary Journalism.” Literary Journalism Studies 1.1 (2009): 67-78.

Ricketson, M. “Not muddying, clarifying: towards understanding the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction.” Text 14:2 (2010).

Wolfe, T. “The New Journalism.” The New Journalism. Eds. Tom Wolfe, E.W. Johnson. Picador: London, 1975: 15-68.

© Copyright Malcolm Knox 2013